Beth Noveck: Can The Open-Data Revolution Change Our Democracies? Former White House deputy CTO Beth Noveck shares her vision of practical openness: connecting bureaucracies to citizens, sharing data, and creating a truly participatory democracy.

Can The Open-Data Revolution Change Our Democracies?

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Is anything going to be private in 50 years or 100 years?

BETH NOVECK: Or is privacy dead and we should all get over it?

RAZ: Yeah right, and just walk around naked.

NOVECK: There's - we have to leave something to the imagination.

RAZ: This is Beth Noveck, and her big idea - open up the government. Does that worry you, though, that privacy is disappearing?

NOVECK: Does it worry me? Sure. But I think we need to stop, in this conversation, viewing ourselves as the passive victims where data is collected about us, and where we are being manipulated. Those things are true, and they are very urgently worrisome. What we need to do is to think about ourselves as active participants in the conversation. You know, we can go out and gather data, and contributing it to projects and to communities that are interested in using that data to do good.

RAZ: And that is exactly what Beth wants all of us to do - citizens, governments, everyone to break open the doors and start an open government revolution. And she actually did that for a while at the Obama White House. Here's the start of her TED Talk.


NOVECK: I came in to become the head of open government, to take the values and the practices of transparency, participation and collaboration and instill them into the way that we work - to open up government to work with people. But when I got to the White House at the beginning of 2009 at the start of the Obama administration, the White House was anything but open. Bomb blast curtains covered my windows. We were running Windows 2000. Social media were blocked at the firewall. We didn't have a blog, let alone a dozen Twitter accounts like we have today. So when we wanted to create our open government policy, what did we do? We wanted, naturally, to ask public sector employees how we should open up government. Turns out that had never been done before. We wanted to ask members of the public to help us come up with a policy, not after the fact, commenting on a rule after it's written, the way it's typically the case, but in advance. There was no legal precedent, no cultural precedent, no technical way of doing this.

In fact, many people told us it was illegal. Here's the crux of the obstacle. The way that our institutions are designed in our rather 18th-century centralized model is to channel the flow of values through voting once every four years, once every two years, at best, once a year. This is a rather anemic and thin way in this era of social media for us to actually express our values.

Let me be clear that I think openness in government doesn't refer simply to transparency alone. It's not just about opening a window onto how government works. It's about raising the barn. We've long had the notion for many years that transparency will help government function better. It will be less corrupt, but as we evolve the technology that causes us and enables us to gather much more information, what we're quickly realizing is that transparency by itself is not enough.


NOVECK: Today, we have the opportunity and we have the imperative to create thousands of new ways of interconnecting between networks and institutions. The citizen jury, the carrot mob, the hack-a-thon - we are just beginning to invent the models by which we can co-create the process of governance. And we don't fully have a picture of what this will look like yet, but we're seeing pockets of evolution emerging all around us. Maybe not even evolution. I'd even start to call it a revolution in the way that we govern.

First phase is in getting better information and the second phase is in getting decision-making power out. Participatory budgeting has long been practiced in Puerto Alegre, Brazil. They're just starting it in the 49th Ward in Chicago. Russia is using wikis to get citizens writing law together, as is Lithuania. When we start to see power over the core functions of government - spending, legislation ,decision-making, then we're well on our way to an open government revolution.

RAZ: Like, open government sounds great, right, but that assumes that the government isn't just going to not spy on us, but also, like, if they are going to spy on us, they're not going to let that information get out. Like, how can we trust an open government system when that happened?

NOVECK: You know, the revelations of massive surveillance, I think, revealed to us is not, I would say, simply that we can't trust our government, but that our government doesn't trust us. And I think that's the much greater danger and the much better opportunity here for us to confront. And the way that we're going to do that, I would argue, is by being more open about how we design systems that work. You know, one of the saddest outcomes of the Snowden affair is that we have so eroded the trust between government and the American people, and especially between government and the technology industry that it's going to be very hard to get the smartest technologists, whether they're in industry or academia, to work together with government to really figure out how do we protect ourselves and our communities from terrorists and from criminals and from bad guys.

RAZ: But, I mean, even with something as simple as Facebook, when you click 'like' on somebody's page, I mean, that's a data point, right. And then say you do participate in, like, open government. I mean, how do you know that that data point isn't going to be used against you? I mean, I know it sounds a little paranoid. I admit it.

NOVECK: No, it doesn't. It doesn't sound paranoid at all. I mean, it may sound paranoid in the U.S. but it surely doesn't sound paranoid if you're in Syria.

RAZ: Exactly.

NOVECK: And it surely doesn't sound paranoid if you're in many countries where we've seen how social media postings has led to somebody being hauled off to the police or to prison or worse. Participating in many cultures is actually actively dangerous. And here it's potentially just viewed as a waste of time because there's the general consensus that no one's listening and no one cares.

RAZ: So Edward Snowden gave this video message. And he said that kids born today will never experience privacy. I mean, do you think that's true?

NOVECK: I don't think it's true that we've ever experienced privacy by that token. We used to live in small villages and communities, and maybe now even live in an apartment building with a doorman or you go to a school and you live in a workplace. None of us truly experience privacy unless we live in a cave because we are observed, we are watched, we talk about others, they talk about us. I think the point that we are increasing the volume by which that happens with people who are unknown to us is increasingly discomforting to us. And we are having to come to terms as individuals and as a society with what is acceptable. And it's a conversation that I'm glad we're having as a result of recent events.

RAZ: Beth Noveck on opening up the government source code. And in a moment, another TED speaker who thinks we can do the same thing with medical research. We're talking ideas around privacy and openness - what we get to keep, what we give away. And if you want to weigh in, check out our collaboration with the Huffington post on this episode. Go to And send in your own thoughts. I'm Guy Raz. More in a moment on the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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